After drought, Texas cattle fetching record prices

Friday , March 16, 2012 - 3:17 PM

Greg Kendall-Ball

Cattlemen have long memories, which is why many Texas beef producers are holding off on replenishing herds they thinned during last year's historic drought.

As water supplies dried up, as grasses and wheat shriveled, and as the price of hay skyrocketed, local ranchers sold off tens of thousands of cattle they couldn't afford to keep.

"Last year, we sold off more than 23,000 cows. That was just cows -- not steers or calves. Just cows," said Randy Carson, owner of Abilene Livestock Auction.

"Now they're gone. They either went off north or off to the meatpacker. They ain't making calves this year," he said.

Without calves to naturally rebuild their herds, ranchers have to buy replacement stock. At auction, cattle are fetching record prices per pound.

On Wednesday, Carson helped load several cattle onto a truck headed for the slaughterhouse in San Angelo, Texas. One of the animals was a 2,090-pound bull, which fetched more than $1.50 per pound at auction.

"I've never seen a (slaughter) bull fetch that much, ever," Carson said. "Supply and demand rules everything, and the supply is pretty low right now."

Contending with increasingly high prices for stock and feed, and with the expense associated with hauling water, leasing land, and servicing interest on an agriculture loan means many producers are leery of jumping back into the beef business.

Especially when there are no guarantees this year will be any kinder.

"We've gotten some recent rains, and a lot of pastures are green," Carson said. "But that's rye grass and weeds, which will die off when it turns hot."

Still needed are heavy soaking rains to not only refill near-empty stock tanks, but to bring out the native grasses which can survive a normal summer.

"Depending on who you listen to, this drought could be over or it could be worse than last year," Carson said. "A lot of people are going to sit back and watch the weather before buying new stock."

But, if spring rains return, and the drought does appear broken, Carson said he'd expect to see most ranchers restocking. That, in turn, would drive the auction prices even higher.

While local ranchers wait-and-see, officials with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension program are trying to help beef producers have a plan in place should they choose to re-enter the market.

According to the program, the January 2012 Texas beef cow inventory revealed 660,000 fewer cows than the previous year. Agents will be holding one-day seminars in Midland, Graham, Athens and Abilene during April.

J.W. "Dub" Vinson runs a herd of cattle on land east of Tuscola. He's ranched in the area since the 1960s, and he said Wednesday he already has a plan in place.

Vinson sold off more than 160 head last year due to drought, and held back 65 heifers to hopefully breed.

Even if the calves come, and if good rains and grass growth replace the ongoing drought, Vinson said he'll not be buying new stock this year.

"Last year was the worst I've seen it in my time here," Vinson said. "Our pastures got hit real hard, and even if we do have a good year, I'm just going to give them a year off to recover."

"Maybe we'll try again next year," he said.

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